I WAS sitting on the grass at Soho Square with some good friends while waiting for part two of the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play in London’s West End to begin.
The sun was shining in the middle of August and we had fruits, pizza and booze around us. That weekend, thanks to an old friend’s generosity, I was staying at a five-star hotel in the heart of Leicester Square.
I remember pausing for a moment and asking myself, how did I get here?
I was in a contemplative mood. At that time, my friends were discussing plans for my upcoming birthday, and I had just returned from a six-week visit to Kuala Lumpur for work and to spend time with my family. The day before, I was enjoying the summer weather with my friend Nazri, whom I have not met in several years.
We took a picture together and posted it on Facebook; his caption was about good friends who could easily pick up from where they left off, even if it had been more than five years.
For more than a decade, I have written in this column numerous times about the charmed life I lead, and shared not just anecdotes about my family, but also paid tribute to the enormous contribution they have made to this life of mine.
But it is my birthday tomorrow and if the past few years are anything to go by, I know I will be overwhelmed by the numerous well-wishes on Facebook and Twitter from my friends. I would then respond with gratitude, and write a long post reflecting on the past year.
This year, instead of responding to wishes celebrating me, I would like to celebrate my friends instead.
If my good friends’ roles in my life were not obvious to me before, they are clear now, thanks to the events of the past one year.
In that time, I have had to leave my life in Malaysia again and move to a foreign city. This was the hardest move I have had to make – leaving my mother and siblings to take care of my father, knowing it would be the longest period I would be living somewhere else, and not being sure if my father would remember me the next time I came home.
I was also going to be living on my own for the first time, which caused as much anxiety as there was excitement running through my veins. Understanding this, my good friend Stephen, whom I have known virtually for a couple of years but have never met, welcomed me to my new home on my first day in Nottingham with the best antidote – six bottles of wine.
That small gesture made all the difference – I walked into a cold and unfamiliar empty house, but then, I knew there were people around who had my back when I needed them. And what support I got! Stephen had to spend two whole weeks dealing with my incessant questions about heating, bills and other home-related queries.
A couple of weeks later at a seminar, I complained about how difficult it was to make friends in my office and department. Judit, Juliet and other people whom I had not met before that day, went out for drinks with me – helping me make my first few friends in Nottingham. Today, we are good friends.
Barely three months after moving to Nottingham, the most heartbreaking time of my life occurred when I lost my father unexpectedly. I was in London when I got the news, and in a whirlwind of a few hours in the middle of the night, a bunch of friends – those in Nottingham, London and Amsterdam – came together to literally get me ready to go to the airport.
Adam and Justin fed me as I quickly packed, while Lee was on standby to drive me to the airport. My Dutch friend Dennis was in Amsterdam waiting for me, and took me for dinner and hosted me for a night before I could catch my plane the next morning.
Then, in the days following the funeral, many of my friends came by to offer their condolences (including one person whom I thought did not really like me!). After, when I was avoiding most people, Robert in London, Elliot in Nottingham, and Ryan in Kuala Lumpur were such strong pillars of support.
When it was time to return to England, being completely aware that I was leaving my mother behind, my good friend Jason agreed to move into my old bedroom.
But then, it is not just when the going gets tough that friends rise to the occasion.
Over the years, I have benefited so much from the friendship of my friend Ivy, who is always there to offer kind words in times of trouble, sound advice when I need them, and a stern putting-me-in-my-place when I deserved it. It is the push by people like her, my good friend Yuen, my new neighbours and others I regularly speak to that has kept me sane this past year.
Thinking about all these people – and the many more I cannot list down for obvious reasons, but who are no less important to me – it makes me have so much faith in humanity, so much respect for human kindness, and so much respect for the human spirit.
These people to me, like hopefully many others to you, is only a small indication of how much love and caring can lift a person up.
Just imagine what it would be like if we could all come together in the same way for mankind, creating a world where there is less hate and more love.
That will be what I will wish for tomorrow when I blow out the candles on my birthday cake while celebrating with the bunch of friends I had spent that sunny weekend with in London, in August.
My friends Alan and Angeline have been plotting a small gathering of good friends, and the former has kindly offered to host it in his home. Before that, I will have lunch with my aunts and uncles, and on Friday, head over to Bristol to spend the weekend with Stephen and his partner.
Tonight, some of my closest friends in Nottingham and I will be out bowling before painting the town red.
It is going to be a busy few days, but considering the year I have had and how everyone has rallied around me, there is nothing more I would rather do than spend my birthday with as many of my friends as possible.
I am also very aware that this piece may sound like a thank-you speech at an awards ceremony, but really, with friends like mine, it is hard not to feel like I have won in life.
To everyone I have mentioned, and to those I could not, here is a heartfelt thank you as I celebrate the privilege of having known you all for yet another year.
- Niki Cheong is a PhD researcher in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies at The University of Nottingham, UK. Connect with him online at www.nikicheong.com/news